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The Nighttime Routine That'll Make You More Productive Tomorrow

by Jessica Migala /
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Image / AP

Right. You definitely don’t want to spend an extra five minutes at work, sit in silence and take a few deep breaths, or get your addiction to your beast of an inbox under control — but you know what? If you want to have a happier, more focused, more get-it-done day tomorrow, those are the exact things you should do. At first, you might have to force yourself to actually do them, but soon they’ll become second nature. Here are 10 to try tonight:

At the end of the day, prep tomorrow’s to-do list

Take five minutes before leaving the office to set up your plan for what needs to be accomplished tomorrow. You can even block out periods of time in your calendar just to give yourself the opportunity to get it all done. This small step can help because “you’re identifying the things you need to do while still awake rather than ruminating about what needs to be done when you get into bed,” says David Brendel, MD, PhD, Boston-area psychiatrist and executive coach at Leading Minds Executive Coaching. The only catch: “You need to make a clear promise to yourself that you won’t deal with it until the morning,” he says. The next day, you’ll be primed to dive right in.

And while you’re at it, tidy up your desk, too

“There’s something about cleaning up the day — and cleaning up your desk — that allows you to tuck everything away and go to sleep,” says Brendel. So take another five minutes to throw things away you don’t need, gather loose papers, and toss those old snack wrappers. Of course, there are some people who thrive on “messy chaos” — and if that’s you, feel free to ignore this advice — but for the most part people work more effectively with organization, he says.

Block out email time

That’s right: permission to tackle your inbox at night. “It’s not realistic to tell certain people that they can’t check email at night,” says Brendel. Rather than letting your inbox have a free-for-all with your evening, devise a structure for checking that works for you. “Know yourself and make a plan,” he says. For example, maybe you don’t look at your phone from five to seven p.m. when you’re hanging with the family, but then you log on and return whatever emails are needed for a half hour. After that, the phone goes off (or at least across the room). That way, you get the benefit of being unplugged but won’t wake up to an inbox that makes you feel like you're drowning.

Keep a consistent bedtime

When you go to bed late, it’s tempting to wake up later — especially over the weekend. Keeping an inconsistent sleep-wake time throws off your circadian rhythms. When you sleep in on the weekend, you have trouble falling asleep on Sunday night — and you begin the week on Monday sleep-deprived, explains Robert S. Rosenberg, board-certified sleep medicine physician and author of The Doctor’s Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety. It may take you a whole day to get back to your normal weekday sleep-wake cycle. That’s not worth it for a Monday spent dragging. Over the weekend, stick to the same schedule as best you can. You have about a half hour to an hour of wiggle room, says Rosenberg.

Pick up a book. Pick up a magazine. Don’t pick up your e-reader

When young, healthy adults used an e-reader before bed for five nights, they took 10 minutes longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep and woke up feeling sleepier and less alert versus participants who read a print book, per 2015 research in the journal PNAS. Blame all that bright blue light, which was found to suppress levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin by 55 percent in the e-reading group. (Reading traditional print books didn’t suppress those levels at all.) The researchers say that this may increase your risk of insomnia — and that won’t do you any favors in the productivity department.

But schedule study time before bed

Whether you need to prep for a presentation or an important meeting, consider studying up on important points before bed. One 2012 study in PLOS One found that when people did a word memory task before bed, they performed better when retested 24 hours later compared to those who did it during the day. Learning before sleep helps consolidate memories, so you’ll get a bigger cognitive boost if you skip the TV and freshen up on your notes instead.

But don’t take work into bed

Forget the image of you wearing your glasses and jammies with your laptop propped on your lap as you sit under the covers. Rosenberg tells patients that they should never take work-related materials into the bedroom. This helps your brain associate your bedroom as a sanctuary free — not just another office.

Try a 10-minute meditation

“If you want to function most productively and reach peak performance, you need to take time in the evening to unwind and recharge,” says Brendel. To make the most of that downtime, practice meditation or mindfulness. One 2013 study found that people who underwent a mindfulness-training course for two weeks improved performance on comprehension and memory tests and were better able to focus with less mind-wandering. Find a quiet space, set a timer and just hang out and breathe.

Do the same thing every night

A regular bedtime routine will cue your brain that it’s time to wind down and get sleepy. And while it may seem like watching The Daily Show is enough, you should pry yourself away from the TV in favor of a bath or shower or light stretching, suggests the National Sleep Foundation. Rosenberg also tells his patients to paint or do crafts, listen to music or talk to a loved one who makes you feel good about yourself. Doing those activities will get you away from screens and help guide your mind into power-down mode.

If you can’t sleep, get out of bed

When a racing mind is keeping you up at night, don’t languish in bed willing yourself to drift off. “If you feel stressed and are unable to fall asleep, get out of bed after 20 minutes, go into another room and do something relaxing,” advises Rosenberg. That can be tough to do when you have a big day coming up and you know you need sleep. But it’s imperative to ensure that your brain associates your bed with sleep — not stress. When you feel sleepy again, go back to bed. Good night and sleep tight.

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